Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. (Shutterstock)
Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. (Shutterstock)

The best kind of book asks a big question, tries to answer it (without being foolish), and leaves you with another question. For me, the best book of 2014 was Reluctant Meister, Stephen Green’s superb analysis of German history and culture.

The book asks: What went wrong? How could one of world’s most creative and productive peoples produce the Third Reich? Green’s profoundly insightful answer in turn raises a deeply disturbing question: Is China the next Germany? Making sure the answer is “no” is the challenge of our century.

Mr. Green — or Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint, if you prefer — is a former CEO of HSBC Bank and a former British Conservative cabinet minister who is also an ordained Anglican priest. All his life he has been fascinated by the Germans.

“There is no culture on the planet greater than that of Germany,” he writes. “No country has contributed more to the history of human ideas and creativity. No country has been deeper into the abyss.”

Reluctant Meister traces a history, going back as far as Roman times, in which Germans suffer at the hands of others. Located, as they are, in the centre of Europe, their land has historically been a battlefield; to this day the Germans identify the Thirty Years War of 1618–1648 as one of their greatest national traumas.

Unlike the French or the English, the Germans were prevented from coalescing as a nation; instead they were left atomized and perpetually under threat. Yet they knew they were a people, and they protected their shared sense of self against all outsiders.

In their determination to preserve that shared sense of self, they fostered a culture of intellectual, artistic and entrepreneurial achievement unequalled by any other society. Green traces the power of German thought from Luther through Kant and Hegel to Heidegger and Habermas. He traces as well the power of German music and poetry. Without German philosophy and art, where would we be?

But there is nothing in this world more dangerous than a victim who gets his hands on a gun. When the Germans finally united (sans Austria) in 1871 in what was called the Second Reich, they were filled with pride and a conviction that their time had finally come. They had already embraced the Romantic myth of Blut und Boden  (blood and soil) as the root of their culture. But if you identify with blood and the land, then those who are on your land but not of your blood are alien. Jews.

And if you are cursed with bad luck and worse leaders, all of the darkest elements of your sense of collective belonging will come out. You will bond with your people against other peoples. Your sense of duty to your kind will suppress your sense of duty to yourself as an independent moral actor. Defeat in battle (the First World War) and economic troubles (the Depression) will only heighten your belief in your own victimhood, your suspicion of the alien, and your bond with your brothers — Blut und Boden — until in your rage you lose the capacity to love anyone other than yourself and your kind, and he who embodies that rage and self-love. Hitler.

It was a cataclysm, not only for the world and especially for the Jews, but for the Germans themselves, who died in the millions, with the survivors left defeated, dispossessed, expelled, living among ruins and often with the memory of rape. Stunde Null they called it, Zero Hour, the end of everything.

Except it wasn't. Stunde Null was actually a beginning. The Germans rebuilt, reunited and today lead Europe — reluctantly, this time, still wary of themselves, always questioning.

Throughout this story, as Mr. Green tells it, the reader might wonder: Is China next? “Germany is not the only example of a country whose relationship with its neighbours is influenced by a sense of past victimization,” he writes. “…China has some clear parallels with the fast changing and emerging new power that was the Second Reich.” A great civilization, rich in culture and thought, is laid low by foreign invaders, enduring generation after generation of humiliation.

But China is united again, and powerful, and convinced its time has come. “It is easy to recognize the challenges that a new international power in such a mood can pose — to itself and for others.”

Will the Chinese equivalent of Blut und Boden cause them to lash out — over the South China Sea, over Western control of global institutions, or simply to divert the attention of their people from internal unrest?

It doesn't have to be like that, any more than Wilhelm II had to be such a horribly bad emperor, or the Depression had to undermine the Weimer Republic. Things can go differently; they could have gone differently for the Germans.

But if you are young today, this should matter more to you than anything else on earth. If China and the West remain at peace, then the 21st century will avoid the terrors of the 20th. If China and the West go to war, it will be horrible beyond imagining.

The Germans know how this goes, and how it ends. Their example is a lesson to the world, for good and for ill. Anyone who wants to understand that lesson should read Stephen Green’s book.

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